There was a recent dust-up on the social network Facebook, when the legendary author Anne Rice publicly announced that she was giving up on Christianity. She was giving up because she could no longer stand to listen to people who in the name of Jesus were declaring themselves righteous and declaring others worthy of condemnation. She cited sexual orientation, religion, and place of birth as common fault lines that were particularly troubling.
She would have found the Pharisee in our Gospel lesson from Luke on Sunday also troubling (Luke 18:9-14). It’s hard to imagine a more earnest, conscientious, religious person than the Pharisee. He was committed to spiritual practice, and for all appearances would have made a solid member of our own congregation! But he made a tragic mistake in his religious life–a mistake toxic to authentic spirituality.
The Pharisee “trusted in himself and regarded others with contempt.” It’s not that difficult to find similar attitudes lurking in our own hearts – toward those of another political party, religious tradition, or toward those less fortunate than ourselves, such as the poor and the mentally ill. It may make us feel good to favorably compare ourselves to others but Jesus warns us that it is a dark place to avoid. What we all need when we fail or don’t live up to our own expectations or the expectations of others is not condescension but compassion, not shame but hope.
Jesus tells us that the tax collector, who approached God without self-justification and with humble honesty, was the one who experienced genuine renewal in his relationship with God. To “live in the truth of who we really are,” as St. Teresa of Avila described humility, is to feel somewhat naked and vulnerable. But the parable teaches us that such honest self-definition can be quite liberating as well. To accept that we are accepted by God and to trust in the one “whose property is always to have mercy,” is to make a quantum leap in the spiritual life. Honest, heartfelt prayer, Jesus suggests, can be made with just seven simple words, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Based on similar words in Mark 10:47, “The Jesus Prayer,” has been practiced as a breathing prayer within the monasteries of the Eastern Church for centuries. The simple prayer, “Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner,” became more widely known through the publication of a book written by an unknown Russian author in the late nineteen century. This book, The Way of the Pilgrim, brought the Jesus Prayer out of the monasteries and into the wider world. For a good introduction to praying “The Jesus Prayer,” see Frederica Mathewes-Green comprehensive book, “The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God.”